In April 2013 President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – committing 100 million dollars to brain research. The goal of this initiative is to accomplish with the brain what the Human Genome Project accomplished with the human genome.
The BRAIN project came after a similar, and larger, initiative in Europe – the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP), which was given 1.3 billion dollars in funding. The HBP came under some controversy this summer when neuroscientists complained about how the money was being awarded.
The serious commitment to brain research on both sides of the Atlantic reflects the general recognition that the brain is an important and complex organ (arguably the most complex thing we know about in the universe) and there is tremendous opportunity to reap benefits from new research.
The comparison to the Human Genome Project is quite deliberate. The HGP is generally perceived to have been incredibly successful, the biological equivalent of announcing that we will send people to the moon by the end of the decade, then doing it.
It looks like we can file this one under “here we go again.” A small town in Colombia, El Carmen de Bolivar, has seen more than 200 girls hospitalized with a mysterious illness since May of this year. The symptoms include dizziness, headaches, and fainting. So far, all of the girls hospitalized have been found to be healthy and were quickly released from the hospital without discovering any specific disease or pathology.
Unfortunately I have to depend on news outlets to provide information about this case, and most are skimpy on details. However, taking what is being reported, the case has all the features of mass psychogenic illness. Specifically, the cases are clustering in a small community, which is typical for typical for episodes of mass delusions. The symptoms being reported are all subjective and the kinds of symptoms that can result entirely from psychological stress. I have seen no reports of objective clinical findings, such as fever, rash, abnormal laboratory findings, strange lesions, or objective findings on exam.
Doctors who have examined the patient feel that the presentation is consistent with psychogenic illness. I have discussed this at length previously. A psychogenic illness results from the physical manifestation of psychological stress. This is always partly a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that other causes of the presenting symptoms need to be ruled out. However, it is more than just a diagnosis of exclusion, as there are sometimes clinical features that can be positively demonstrated to be psychological rather than physical. The ultimate test of the psychogenic diagnosis is that patients should improve with support and encouragement.
That there is an “autism epidemic” is taken as a given by those who feel autism has a dominant environmental cause. The Age of Autism blog, for example, bills itself as a, “Daily Web Newspaper of the Autism Epidemic.” The term “epidemic” also implies an environmental factor, such as an infection.
The epidemiology of autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has never supported the conclusion that there is an autism epidemic. There is no doubt that the number of autism diagnoses has increased in the last two decades, but the evidence strongly suggests this increase in an artifact of how autism diagnoses are made, and not representative of a true increase.
Adding to this data, a newly published study looks at autism and ASD prevalence worldwide: “The epidemiology and global burden of autism spectrum disorders“. They found:
In 2010 there were an estimated 52 million cases of ASDs, equating to a prevalence of 7.6 per 1000 or one in 132 persons. After accounting for methodological variations, there was no clear evidence of a change in prevalence for autistic disorder or other ASDs between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, there was little regional variation in the prevalence of ASDs.
A recent editorial entitled “CAM in the Real World: You May Practice Evidence-Based Medicine, But Your Patients Don’t” published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain by Robert Cowan, a headache specialist, addresses the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the treatment of headaches. Unfortunately he propagates many common misconceptions about CAM in the article.
I do agree with one point – physicians need to be more aware of CAM treatments and their patients’ use of them. We should be directly asking our patients about such use, in a non-judgmental way, and we should be familiar enough with common CAM treatments so that we can provide knowledgeable guidance to our patients.
Cowan begins by, in my opinion, grossly exaggerating the current popularity of CAM. He writes:
As much as 82% of headache sufferers use complementary and alternative approaches.
The reference he cites, however, states:
Adults with migraines/severe headaches used CAM more frequently than those without (49.5% vs 33.9%, P < .0001); differences persisted after adjustment (adjusted odds ratio = 1.29, 95% confidence interval [1.15, 1.45]). Mind–body therapies (eg, deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga) were used most commonly.
Only 4.5% of adults with migraines/severe headaches reported using CAM to specifically treat their migraines/severe headaches.
The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recently published in the journal Stroke a thorough analysis of the evidence for an association between cervical manipulative therapy (CMT) and both vertebral artery dissection (VAD) and internal carotid artery dissection (ICAD). The full article is online: “Cervical Arterial Dissections and Association With Cervical Manipulative Therapy: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.” For background, an arterial dissection is essentially a tear in the inner lining of the artery. This tear disrupts the normal flow of blood, and also causes platelets to gather at the site of injury. This can result in a blood clot at the site of the dissection. This blood clot can block flow through the artery, or it can break off and lodge downstream, blocking flow at that point. Dissections, therefore, can result in a stroke (a lack of blood flow to a portion of the brain causing damage). There are four arteries in the neck that bring blood from the heart to the brain, two carotid arteries in the front, and two vertebral arteries in the back. A dissection in one or more of these arteries is associated with 2% of all strokes, but with 8-25% of strokes in patients <45 years old. This is mostly because strokes associated with processes like atherosclerosis are much less common in the younger population. Arterial dissections are classified as either spontaneous or traumatic. Trauma can be either severe, such as whiplash injury from a car accident, or subtle, such as from yoga or simply turning one’s neck to look past the shoulder. (more…)
Years of analyzing popular but dubious claims leads to the impression that just about all knowledge that filters down to the popular consciousness is essentially wrong, at least as a first approximation. This may sound cynical, but think about any area in which you have specialized knowledge and compare that to what the average person believes about that area. Now extrapolate that to every other area of specialized knowledge.
I may be skeptical, but I am not a nihilist. I do think the situation can be and is being improved by popularizing science and other areas of knowledge. Experts need to be directly involved in teaching the public about their area, and when they are, popular beliefs can be corrected.
One example is the myth that we only use 10% of our brain. This is still fairly popular, and was recently a central plot element to the blockbuster movie, Lucy. However, Google “10% brain” and you will find nothing but links to sites debunking this myth, at least in the first few pages.
The BBC recently reported that a Guinean singer, Alama Kante, sang through her surgery in order to protect her voice. The reporting is unfortunately typical in that it emphasizes the seemingly amazing aspects of the story without really trying to put them into proper context. Specifically, the story emphasizes that hypnosis was used during the surgery, since Kante could not be placed under general anesthesia and still be able to sing, reporting:
“The pain of such an operation is intolerable if you are fully awake. Only hypnosis enables you to stand it,” he was reported as saying by to French publication Le Figaro.
“She went into a trance listening to the words of the hypnotist. She went a long way away, to Africa. And she began to sing – it was amazing,” he said.
Reports of major surgery being performed using self-hypnosis or hypnosis instead of anesthesia crop up regularly, because of the obvious sensationalism of such stories. I reported a similar case from 2008, for example. At least in this case the news report gave the critical piece of information, often missing entirely from such reports:
The Guinean singer, who is based in France, was given just a local anaesthetic and hypnotised to help with the pain during the operation in Paris.
I am formally requesting that Cancer retract an article claiming that psychotherapy delays recurrence and extends survival time for breast cancer patients. Regardless of whether I succeed in getting a retraction, I hope I will prompt other efforts to retract such articles. My letter appears later in this post.
In seeking retraction, I cite the standards of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) for retraction. Claims in the article are not borne out in simple analyses that were not provided in the article, but should have been. The authors instead took refuge in inappropriate multivariate analyses that have a high likelihood of being spurious and of capitalizing on chance.
The article exemplifies a much larger problem. Claims about innovative cancer treatments are often unsubstantiated, hyped, lacking in a plausible mechanism, or are simply voodoo science. We don’t have to go to dubious websites to find evidence of this. All we have to do is search the peer-reviewed literature with Google Scholar or PubMed. Try looking up therapeutic touch (TT).
I uncovered unsubstantiated claims and implausible mechanisms that persisted after peer review in another blog post about the respected, high journal-impact-factor (JIF = 18.03) Journal of Clinical Oncology. We obviously cannot depend on the peer review processes to filter out this misinformation. The Science-Based Medicine blog provides tools and cultivates skepticism not only in laypersons, but in professionals, including, hopefully, reviewers who seem to have deficiencies in both. However, we need to be alert to opportunities not just to educate, but to directly challenge and remove bad science from the literature. (more…)
There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.
I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.